One of my favorite books in the Old Testament is Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon of ancient Israel. Solomon was well known in the ancient world for his wisdom and his riches. But when his sons took over the kingdom after him, the kingdom of Israel split into two nations and went downhill dramatically. Following are some of my thoughts on the book of Ecclesiastes. If you haven’t read it, give it a read. It is a book sometimes misunderstood I think.
How interesting that a book of the Bible should start out with the words, “Meaningless, meaningless, . . . everything is meaningless (Eccl. 1:2).” The book of Ecclesiastes is a very thought-provoking book. It is written I think from the perspective of Solomon, who, late in his life, was looking back with some regrets. I suspect he was trying to write something to get through to people with a sort of secular mindset. Late in the life of Solomon was a bad time in the history of Israel. After Solomon’s sons grew up the kingdom split into Northern and Southern kingdoms under their leadership. Solomon’s sons did not lead the nation to follow God. I suspect Solomon looked with angst on what was happening to the nation and to the lives of his sons. So, Solomon wrote something that you might think of as preevangelism, something intended to get the reader to think about the meaning of life. Ecclesiastes makes you think about what you’re living for and what really makes life worth living. It seems to me Solomon sort of switches perspectives sometimes throughout the book, sometimes writing from the “secular” or unbelieving mindset, and sometimes from the believing mindset. Thus, Ecclesiastes makes its points in sometimes subtle ways. If you don’t see what it is implying about God it can seem like a depressing read. Especially the first two chapters. But there is a good and encouraging message from Ecclesiastes.
Chapter 1 in verse 9 has the well known verse saying “there is nothing new under the sun.” It mentions the various cycles of life in nature and the fact the man sort of goes through an endless repetitive routine in living his life. When you view it on this level and consider only the material side of life, it can appear very empty and futile. I think Ecclesiastes should be viewed similar to the Proverbs. There are statements in Proverbs that should not be taken as absolutely true in all circumstances, but they are generally true in many cases. It is making generalizations that are not intended as absolute statements that apply to all people everywhere all the time. (Not everything in the Bible can be taken this way, but Proverbs and Ecclesiastes can be.) Then there are other types of statements in Ecclesiastes that are expressions of feeling about how life seems, not meant to be taken as actual fact about the world. Thus, in understanding Ecclesiastes we must understand it is making generalizations from a particular perspective. Also, because it changes perspective, almost like changing worldviews, it looks at life in different ways in turn.
In the end of chapter 1 and on into chapter 2 Solomon comments about how even seeking wisdom and knowledge as well as seeking pleasure can seem meaningless. In understanding the injustices of life and all the ways that life falls short of what it should be, there is sorrow. This may be what Solomon implied in 1:18, “with much wisdom comes much sorrow.” Yet seeking pleasure and having everything a man’s heart desires doesn’t satisfy either. Chapter 2 verse 17 says Solomon hated life! Solomon was fantastically rich and had owned everything and done everything a man could ask for. In 2:2 Solomon says laughter is foolish and asks “what does pleasure accomplish?” Even accomplishing great building projects did not satisfy. The thing that is missing is a spiritual element that will be hinted at in later chapters of Ecclesiastes. Solomon eventually comes to the conclusion that what makes life meaningful is to accept the good things given to us by God and live a life of obedience to Him (see Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
In some sections of Ecclesiastes Solomon looks at things from a kind of cynical angle that is very centered on only this life, as if our Earthly existence is all there is. And the way he describes life in those sections does not seem to acknowledge God but treats earthly life as if God doesn’t really have relevance. But in other sections he acknowledges God and does treat life as if God is relevant and as if there is more to life than what we sense in this life. Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes is like this. 3:1 starts out “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” Who’s perspective is this? Does this make sense from a human perspective? I don’t think so. Continuing on to verse 10 it describes the burden God has laid on men. Then in v 11 it says He (God) has “made everything beautiful in its time.” This is suggesting God’s providential purpose in events that seem mystifying to us. So, when it refers to “a time for everything“, or “a time for . . . ” particular things, I think the real point is that there is a purpose in all kinds of things in life. Both the good and the bad things that people do are wrapped into God’s providential purpose for history. God has “set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done . . . .(Eccl. 3:11)” Sometimes people have taken this list of “a time for ” this and that to be a sort of implication that everything is ok, as if there is no right and wrong. But verses 2-8 do not deny right and wrong. Man has a burden of responsibility to do what’s right even though all types of things will happen around us which God allows. We have responsibiltiy, but God is still sovereign. This chapter is I think Solomon presenting the wonder of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in comparison and contrast. Verses 15 and 17 also both mention accountability to God as the judge of men. So Solomon says the best you can do in this life is to enjoy the work God has given you and live life acknowledging Him. Why does God want men (3:18-19) to realize that they are like the animals, that they have the same material fate as the animals? Verse 21 sounds like a statement that an agnostic would make. (I was once an agnostic.) It’s like saying “who knows what happens after you die?” I think this is a way of saying God wants people to see beyond our material life and realize this life does matter. That we are not just animals and there is something eternal that matters for us.
Chapter 5 seems to be about having a healthy attitude toward possessions, money, and government. The pursuit of material possessions and riches is an empty thing. The more you have the more you want, unless you learn to have contentment with what you have. If you have more money, you spend more and so people have a tendancy to run out of money however much they make. We must learn to stop the spiraling pursuit before it destroys us. Who sleeps better, the one who engages in hard physical labor but only has enough to live or the rich person, who has all kinds of things they have dreamed of having? It is often the poor laborer who sleeps better and has more peace. When you have less you learn contentment better. The answer to the emptiness of the material pursuit is to appreciate what you have as a gift from God. Thus, Solomon says “when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. (Eccl. 5:19) ” Be content with what you have. How long did it take Solomon to learn this? A lifetime apparently.
Ecclesiastes is written to help people ask spiritual questions about what life is all about.